Princeton professor Dr. Cornel West

Tavis begins this week of shows on poverty in the U.S. with Princeton professor Dr. Cornel West, who explains why the future of American democracy is predicated on how this issue is handled.

A renowned scholar, Princeton professor Dr. Cornel West has written/edited more than 20 books, including Race Matters, the NYT best seller Democracy Matters and, his memoir, Brother West. Outside of academia, he's been described as an "intellectual provocateur," with lectures, TV and film appearances and his spoken-word CDs. He provided philosophical commentary on all three Matrix films, and his disc, "Never Forget: A Journey of Revelations," combined hip-hop and intellectual dialogue. West has also taught at Harvard, Yale and Union Theological Seminary.


Tavis: Throughout our poverty tour, as you saw, we were honored to be joined by Princeton Professor Cornel West, who I am proud to say serves as my co-host on our public radio program “Smiley & West.” Dr. West, as always, sir, a blessing to have you in this studio.

Dr. Cornel West: My brother, I am blessed to be here. I’ll tell you.

Tavis: Let me start with a very simple question – why a poverty tour for you? I ask that because there’s been great debate of late – some debate of late – about this Heritage Foundation report that suggests that the issue of poverty maybe isn’t as important as people want to make it, there aren’t as many poor people as the numbers suggest.

The point is there’s debate about the poor in this country, so for you, why even a tour about the poor?

West: Well, first, brother, I just want to salute you for coming up with the idea of a poverty tour. I go back to the discussion there in the family room of my mom’s house, and I am just so glad I was blessed to be there with you, because I think anybody can see, who’s concerned about the precious humanity of poor brothers and sisters of all colors, and the rich resiliency, their ability to fight back and resist the circumstances, can see that this is not just a crisis, it is a catastrophe.

So when I hear the Heritage Foundation trying to somehow trivialize the suffering, I say they’re part of a bygone era. You see, with the Occupy Wall Street movement we’re moving into a new era. We’re tired of the indifference to poor people.

The legacy of Martin Luther King Jr., Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, Fannie Lou Hamer, Miles Hornton, (unintelligible) Cesar Chavez, it is not coming back, and it’s about what? Connecting catastrophe with courage and compassion.

Standing up. Having the intellectual courage to tell the truth, and as you rightly say, the condition of truth is to allow suffering to speak. Let us be attuned to the suffering, and let us have compassion. It’s no longer fashionable now to be so obsessed with the lies of the rich and famous that we overlook the fact that 42 percent of our precious children of all colors live in or near poverty. That’s a national disgrace.

Tavis: When you see that clip that Dr. King, as we well know, of course, gave his life fighting for sanitation workers, he was in the throes of his Poor People’s Campaign, this war on poverty, and people are calling now for a new war on poverty, you look at the span of those years, from his death until now, and there really hasn’t been any appreciable gain on the notion of eradicating poverty in America. Why not?

West: Well, part of it is that with the advent of Reagan and Reaganism you had markets unleashed, deregulated, unfettered markets that generated unbelievable innovation – we understand that – but it went hand-in-hand with not just an increasing wealth inequality, but it went hand-in-hand with a callousness toward the catastrophe of poverty, of working people, working poor, the oxymoronic phrase.

So you ended up with what – in the last 25 years, Brother Tavis, in terms of income growth, 82 percent has gone to the top 1 percent. I think that is unjust. It’s unfair. In the last 10 years 100 percent of income growth have gone to the top 10 percent.

So that’s the level of wealth inequality, and it is getting so far out of control that the very future of American democracy is at stake. We are living in one of the most critical moments in the history of this nation and the world.

Tavis: Some might suggest that that is a hyperbolic claim on your part that the future of the democracy is predicated on this moment and what we do about poverty. We’ve had poor people for as long as the country has been here. How does West suggest that the future of the democracy is predicated on what we do about poverty?

West: Well, we’ve got 1 percent of the population that now own 41 percent of the wealth and 25 percent of the income every year. No democracy can survive – democracy is about what? Public interest, common good, and its relation to its citizens, especially its weak and vulnerable citizens.

But when you have corporate greed in the prison industrial complex, which is the kind of new Jim Crow, as Michele Alexander puts it, in the military industrial complex, in the corporate multiplex of mass media, and then of the financial sector, especially of our economy, what does it do?

It generates a dog-eat-dog attitude. No democracy can survive without rich notions of compassion, public service. What are our obligations to other fellow citizens? You and I, materially much better off than most Americans, but we know our destiny is inextricably interwoven with not just our poor brothers and sisters of all colors but those in the prisons, our children, the elderly, the widow, the orphan, the fatherless, the motherless, our working people and so forth.

When you lose that spirit, and this is where the spirit of Martin King and Fannie Lou Hamer and others who are so very important, when you lose that spirit you end up with a culture of superficial spectacle, of narcissism and hedonism, and everyone concerned about the 11th commandment – thou shalt not get caught.

Tavis: What do you make of the fact that these numbers of the poor in the country, numbers growing exponentially in large measure because of women and children joining the ranks of the poor?

I raise that to ask what it says about our nation and about our priorities when women and children are the fastest group of folk joining the ranks of the poor.

West: I tell you, though, brother, I was at an event a couple of weeks ago at Busboys and Poets. Brother Andy just opened it there in Hydesville, Maryland. One of the great prophets of our day, Marian Wright Edelman, she spoke with tears in her eyes, and she said, “To live in a nation where the younger you are the more likely you are to be poor, now, something’s wrong with that.”

That’s wrapped priorities. When Martin Luther King talked about we need a revolution in priorities, somehow we’ve got to turn that around and say, “Our future rests in the quality of thinking, of living, of loving, of laughing among our precious young people of all colors.

That’s why Occupy Wall Street is in place. It’s disproportionate young people saying, “You older folks, you been greedy, you’ve been avaricious, especially those at the time.” But it affects all of us, and it’s important to note, too, though, that especially as a Christian, I think it’s important that when we talk about Wall Street oligarchs and corporate plutocrats we’re not demonizing individuals.

All individuals have the same value, not to be determined by market price. They’re made in the image and likeness of God. So we’re not demonizing the rich, we’re saying the greed of the rich needs democratic accountability.

Tavis: You’re not demonizing them, but it is true that over the years the gap, the gulf between what workers make and what CEOs make, speaking of exponential growth, it’s –

West: Absolutely. 1975, $24 to every $1. Today, it’s $343 to every $1. That’s the corporate greed. Now, I believe that all of us have gangster proclivities and greedy orientations that need accountability. That’s why democracies are necessary. We have to have institutions to try to curtail the use of arbitrary power so that our greedy orientations and gangster-like proclivities don’t get out of hand.

The poor people can be greedy, too. It’s just that they don’t have any material resources. We need shaping of the souls as well as shaping of our institutions.

Tavis: How do you respond to folk who say that where poverty in America is concerned it’s not a lack of focus, it’s not a lack of funding; that the poor are to blame for their station in life.

Put another way, millions, billions, billions and billions of dollars have been spent, going back to the Johnson administration and his war on poverty, trying to lift up the poor in this country.

So to those who say we’ve spent money, we are still spending money on all kinds of anti-poverty programs, what do you Cornel West and Tavis Smiley and others this week want us to do?

West: Well, there’s no doubt that we have to ensure that there’s not waste in any of the administrative programs or bureaucracies. That’s true in the military, that’s true in housing, it’s true in education and so forth. But we know when you have priorities where you’re willing to spend trillions of dollars in wars of Iraq and Afghanistan without being willing to pay for it, we spend $300 billion in the prison industrial complex since 1980.

We tell poor and working people, “We don’t have extra money for education, we don’t have extra money for housing, we don’t have extra money for jobs with a living wage, but we can spend billions of dollars for jails and prisons for the criminal justice system.”

It’s a matter of our priority. That’s why in so many ways when you ended this calling for a call for the love, where is the love, really? Who really loves poor people and working people? And when you love people, you give them a priority. You have a sense of urgency about their pain.

Part of the problem in America is there’s been an attempt to try to banish any genuine empathy for poor people. To marginalize the deep love for poor people. Some of us believe 25th chapter of Matthew was real – you’ve got to love poor folk and others.

Tavis: I got just a couple minutes left. Since you and I were on this tour every step of the way every day for those 3,000 miles, 11 states, 18 cities, one or two things that really struck you, that really hit you, with regard to what you saw since you were there on the tour?

West: I think part of it was I think there was a perception among so many poor people that they were going to fight, but that our political system was so paralyzed, because they know about the culture of decay, they know about the economic injustice – so paralyzed.

Republican Party still too tied to cold-hearted, mean-spirited attitudes, especially as they’re funded by oligarch and plutocrats Democratic Party better, but still tied to oligarchs and plutocrats. Who’s going to not just speak for the poor but how will the poor themselves have their voices heard?

That’s what’s so wonderful about this documentary, this unprecedented moment in U.S. television.

Tavis: What ought to be the response of our leaders in Washington, in the White House and Congress, the Senate taking up the president’s jobs bill this week. In 45 seconds, what ought to be their response to the protests, to the jobs bill, to the notion of lifting up the poor in this country right about now?

West: Now, our dear brother Barack Obama, he’s beginning to hear the kind of pressure that we’ve put on him in terms of jobs, jobs, jobs. Paul Krugman, Robert Cutner and Stieglitz and others have been talking about that, rightly so. But he’s got to fight for it. They have to be jobs with a living wage. Can’t be using tax policy as a jobs policy.

Don’t use the IRS somehow as a mechanism to ensure jobs. We’ve got to talk about mortgage relief. You’ve got to talk about serious public education, and you’ve got to talk about not just regulating the banks. We need to seriously talk about decentralizing the banks so that no longer having the investment banks and commercial banks merge together so that trading and lending somehow overlap and Wall Street ends up being more and more a casino rather than a source of generating real capital for entrepreneurs who are concerned about producing jobs.

Tavis: So blessed to have you on – a blessing to have you on the tour.

West: Bless you. We had a time, didn’t we?

Tavis: We had a great time.

West: We had a time, my brother.

Tavis: Glad to have you here, Doc.

West: What a blessing it was.

Tavis: Finally tonight, a quick word about Liberian peace activist Leymah Gbowee. Last week on this very program, in this very chair where Dr. West sits tonight, she joined us for a wonderful, inspiring conversation about her work on behalf of women in Africa just two days prior to being named the recipient of this year’s Nobel Peace Prize.

What a deserving honor for a remarkable woman. If you missed that conversation you’ll want to access it, the entire conversation, by visiting our website at

Tomorrow, night two of our poverty tour in America.

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Last modified: October 12, 2011 at 11:26 am